Thursday, November 30, 2017

Feminist Legal Theory and consciousness raising

As the fall semester comes to an end, and we close the book on our Feminist Legal Theory course, I find myself reflecting on the concept of consciousness raising.

Early this semester, our class watched Makers: Women Who Made America. Part of the documentary focused on "consciousness raising," a practice developed by feminists in the 1960's and 1970's. Women affiliated with radical feminist organizations in cities and college communities met together in small groups, selected a topic – such as marriage, housework, careers, sexuality, or motherhood – and took turns sharing their own personal stories and experiences on that topic. As the name suggests, this collective experience of sharing led to each woman's consciousness being raised that her experiences were not isolated or unique to her. As Rita Mae Brown, radical feminist activist, stated, women "began to understand common touch-points in each of these lives. All over America, pretty much spontaneously, almost like spontaneous combustion in college communities and big cities, these groups would develop. And what came out of it was similar problems, similar ways of being treated by the world, and often similar desires. If you were to ask a woman, she would just like to be part of the process. I'd like to have my voice heard, you know?"

Feminist consciousness raising has remained as a legacy of the radical feminist era and, driven by fourth wave feminism, has undergone something of a tech renaissance. No longer confined to in-person gatherings in community centers, living rooms, or college dorms, social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram now serve as forums for consciousness raising on a number of feminist issues. Popular campaigns have addressed violence against women (#yesallwomen), the confidence gap between young girls and boys (#banbossy), reproductive autonomy and abortion access (#shoutyourabortion), domestic abuse (#whyistayed), the Women's March post-Trump election (#whyimarch), and most recently sexual harassment (#metoo) ... just to name a few.

The original consciousness raisers of the 60's and 70's faced criticism that their sessions were nothing more than group psychotherapy, myopia, or narcissism. Naysayers continue to complain that the consciousness raising of the social media era is characterized by attention-seeking, laziness, and mere "slacktivism" or "clicktivism" that does little to enact real change.

Of course the skeptics and cynics were, and are, incorrect. The original consciousness raising sessions nurtured a culture of activism. They created an atmosphere where the personal became political, where intimate discussions led to raucous marches and rallies, and where solitude transformed into solidarity. Topics such as workplace equality, abortion, rape, domestic violence, and women's health became less taboo largely because women found the courage to speak out together. Similarly, although social media can potentially silo its users, certain social media movements have demonstrated a power to transcend digital dividing lines and encourage public conversation that results in real world impacts. The #metoo campaign, which corresponded with the public outing of a number of sexual harassers, is a perfect illustration of what can happen when an online movement is embraced by diverse communities and results in actual social change.

It's clear consciousness raising isn't a relic of the past... it's alive and well, and not just online. Our Feminist Legal Theory course has been more than just an academic pursuit. Through our thoughtful questions and discussions, I've had my consciousness raised on feminist issues that intertwine and affect all of our lives... and now is the perfect time. Given our current political moment, where women's issues are under attack, I feel an urgency makes my voice heard on these topics and to make space for others to share.  This semester, I have constantly caught myself in discussions  saying "Actually, someone just talked about this in my Feminist Legal Theory class!" This course has given me a greater understanding of feminist history and a framework for navigating the issues under debate, and for that I am grateful.


Suzanne Connell said...


Like you, I also found Feminist Legal Theory this semester to have an almost cathartic effect and to be a demonstration of living consciousness raising of feminist issues. It was also a bonus that we had a wonderful, diverse class, capable of shedding new light on age-old topics and bringing many issues alive and into focus with deeply personal contributions. I can't begin to emphasize how important I think consciousness raising is, particularly it's current online form, at keeping feminist issues alive and accessible. As with almost anything feminist-related, I'm not surprised there's critiques of the original form of consciousness raising and the various online forms we see today. However, I also think that the pros of consciousness raising far outweigh the cons of being slammed by petty critics. Many of these twitter campaigns in particular have given the valuable gift of a voice to those who have had their voices stolen or silenced for far too long. As feminists, we need to make noise in order to be heard, so if a hashtag on twitter is a means of achieving this, then I'm all for it.

Omar de la Cruz said...


Thank you for your post. I found your paragraph on what the skeptics and cynics say almost comical. You write that they criticize consciousness raising groups for being "group psychotherapy" and all talk with no real action. Even if you categorize consciousness raising to this, what would be so bad about that? What would be so bad about a group where people just talk about their lives and the problems they face? It's not bringing any harm to anyone. Anyway, that's clearly not what consciousness raising groups are about so I guess it doesn't matter. I agree with you that these kinds of groups are alive and well and they have the potential be very powerful. It's comforting to know that because of the internet people can connect like never before and stand together in solidarity through situations that would be crippling in other eras. This level of instantaneous connection to masses of people is also terrifying though. We don't need to look any further than the past election cycle to see the consequences of abusing this type of mass communication.

Joterias! said...

Awesome post B. Williams! Like you, I often find myself raising the topics we discussed in class in conversations with friends. And since many of them are not college educated or have not been exposed to (formal) feminist theories, I’ve made it my mission to frame feminist arguments in layperson’s terms. Indeed, as feminists, we mustn’t forget that feminism concerns concrete problems that affect real people, rather than theoretical abstractions that “ascend from heaven to earth” and obfuscate concrete goals, e.g., gender parity. (See The German Ideology, by Marx.) This means that part-and-parcel of being a feminist is making sure that feminist theory is accessible to women from all educational backgrounds.

Thankfully, there is a burgeoning group of entrepreneurial women who are popularizing feminism in layperson terms. Just recently, a simple canvas tote with the word “chingona” and its definition—“a mujer who is intelligent, fearless, and can get things done”—caught my attention. [] This is because while the Spanish word “chingona” denotes a female “badass,” it also connotes a “badass bitch.” Later, I was delighted to find that “chingona” bags are promoting feminist consciousness raising among Latina women, who are playfully putting feminism in their own words, and recasting feminists as mujeres chingonas. []

And truthfully, we, feminists, need to be pragmatic about how we promote feminism given the pervasive sexism and misogyny that (re)surfaced last year. To do this, we must democratize feminism by, for example, peppering routine conversations with feminist arguments in layperson terms, or even toting “chingona” totes around. Hopefully, this will help fold those who are presently put off by feminism’s elitist tinge into feminism’s ranks. Personally, I look forward to shifting from an avid consumer to a keen salesman of feminism.

Glen Oh said...

As always, thank you for your insightful post! Like you, I hold the efforts of consciousness raising near and dear to my heart. To me it is a widely accessible tool that allows feminists to promote feminists ends by engaging in challenging dialogue.

However, your point about the naysayers characterizing social media consciousness raising as "attention-seeking, laziness, and mere "slacktivism" is something that I worry about. I worry that when having difficult conversations about any given feminist issue, a lot can be lost in translation when people are conversing online. I may be biased, but from personal experience, in-person conversations seem to better facilitate meaningful dialogue.

I also worry that there may be some truth to the criticism that social media consciousness raising has an air of laziness or half-hearted activism associated with it. I fully recognize that technological advances allows for the wide-spread dissemination of information, which has the benefit of community building. But I worry the ease of connecting with others will dissuade people from taking actions on the ground. Civil rights movements in the past were built on marches, demonstrations, sit-ins.

My takeaway point is that so long as social media consciousness raising is used in conjunction with, and not to the exclusion of traditional consciousness raising efforts, it could be an incredibly powerful tool for all feminists.